In this week’s The Nation, Martha Nussbaum reviews Bart Schultz’s new biography, Henry Sidgwick: Eye of the Universe, An Intellectual Biography:
“Far from being a complacent egoistic philosophy, Utilitarianism was radical in both its methods (counting all people equally) and its results, which often urged sweeping change in existing social structures.
Nor were Utilitarians political conservatives, as their modern descendants in economics tend to be. On the contrary, in line with their philosophical convictions, they supported an end to religious establishments, the equality of women, a demanding globalism and, in the case of Mill and Bentham, a dedication to animal rights (since ‘each’ included all sentient beings). . . Bentham condemned laws against same-sex relations, commenting, ‘It is wonderful that nobody has ever yet fancied it to be sinful to scratch where it itches, and that it has never been determined that the only natural way of scratching is with such or such a finger and that it is unnatural to scratch with any other.’
Henry Sidgwick is usually regarded as the tame Victorian among these radicals, the person who domesticated Utilitarianism and made it both academically and socially respectable, in the process smoothing its rough edges. . . [M]ost philosophers . . . would have thought that Sidgwick, unlike Mill, could not possibly have written anything that showed deep emotion or human insight, much less anything that issued a radical challenge to Victorian sensibilities.
Bart Schultz’s mammoth biography shows that we would have been entirely wrong.”